DeKalb nearing approval of new union

DeKalb County took a huge step Tuesday toward having its first union representing non-public safety workers.

County Commissioner Stan Watson introduced an item, deferred for a month, that would officially recognize Teamsters Local 728 as the representative of county sanitation workers.

The ordinance change would not permit collective bargaining or striking by the 450-person department. But if approved as expected in September, it would allow worker representatives to bring ongoing concerns about pay and safety directly to human resources, bypassing department heads.

“We need our own voice,” said Robert S. Willis, a front load operator for the department. “We need a union so we can speak for ourselves.”

More than 150 sanitation workers, some saying they were attending in spite of threats from their supervisors, showed up in force at Tuesday’s commission meeting to ask for the vote. The workers have pushed for a union officially since last fall, though the idea of one has floated around for years.

County commissioners have long said they are open to the idea, noting that the county’s police and firefighters are already represented by unions. Still, they, like other county workers, have not seen merit raises since 2008.

The sanitation workers – seen by nearly every county resident as they roll out for curbside service several times a week – have argued they also are concerned about safety issues in their work.

One hiccup to having a union to push those issues had been a local law, saying the county could not automatically deduct union dues or other donations, such as for charities, directly from worker paychecks.

Ben Speight, the Teamster’s organizing director, said the union solved that problem by enlisting a local credit union to handle dues collection.

More details about that effort and the proposal itself will come up in commission committee meetings, before next month’s vote.

Workers said they will continue to advocate for the union until recognition is final, arguing it will safeguard them and the residents they serve.

“We serve DeKalb County, and we live here,” said Gary Gaither, a driver in the department with nearly 10 years’ experience. “This is for the entire county.”